Review: Ting cell phone service

ting 

An important step to living the tiny house lifestyle is reducing expenses.  In this post I will review cell phone service offered by Ting.com which is a newish cell phone provider (MVNO) that operates on the Sprint network.

Now that I have my tiny house built, I need to take the next step which is to eliminate my remaining debts and trim my monthly expenses where possible. My cell phone bill with AT&T runs me about $90 per month. Their coverage is very good and their data network in my area is excellent.

Like most things in the world of tiny living you first need to ruthlessly evaluate your needs and then find the solution that meets those needs in the most efficient manner.

My needs for a cell phone is to make a couple calls, get emails, and maybe some text messages here and there. I get very few phone calls, maybe 50 minutes per month. My text messages are generally very low as well. For data, I generally use less than 1GB per month.

Another motivation for switching is to stick it to the phone companies who have been sticking it to us.  Many people (like my mom) are happy to get a free phone and keep it for years.  Embedded in each months cell phone bill is a subsidy for the phone you use.  If you don’t get a new phone, or get a cheap one, you are giving the phone company free money each month!  The subsidy you do get has you paying a premium for the phone you use if you factor the total of 24 months of payments.  I want the cheapest service possible….subsidize someone else please!

As part of my research on this topic I stumbled upon the service offered by Ting. They offer a tiered plan that lets you pay for the services you use.

Screen shot 2013-11-27 at 11.35.03 AM

It seemed like a pretty cool concept to me.  I like a barebones offering where I pay for exactly the services I want to use.  If I want a fancy new phone *I* pay for it.  If I want to stream a seasons worth of Breaking Bad, *I* pay for the data.

The Bad

Let me first list the things that I don’t like about Ting’s service. The phone selection is tricky.  I wanted to test it with a cheap phone to see if its worth switching.  To use Ting, you must find a phone that workd on Sprints network. BUT, it can’t be from Virgin or most of the other Sprint MVNO’s. Ting does offer a selecting of new and used phones that will work with their service.  They also publish a whitelist of phones you can bring.

The best way to get a cheap phone is to use eBay or Amazon. These days eBay has become a “…wretched hive of scum and villainy. [You] must be cautious…”. Buyers are opening cases in order to get discounts from sellers. Some buyers  lie and say they never got your package. Cell phone sellers lie saying a phone is not stolen and can be activated when it cannot.

My first phone purchase from eBay was a stolen phone that could not be activated. I’m still working out a refund, but I’m probably out 26 bucks. I ended up using Amazon to purchase a brand new LG Optimus S for $66 shipped in 2 days via their prime service. Amazon has an excellent return policy and generally polices stolen goods very well. I would have been happier spending $26 rather than $66…it is what it is as BB would say.

Ting Activation

The activation process was painless and only took 5 minutes or so. I wish there was an option to pick my own phone number, but otherwise things were fine. Monthly charges go on my credit card which lets me earn home depot gift cards.  

You can use their website to see your usage with a little bit of a lag. I also downloaded the Ting Android app so I can track my usage from the phone.  Overall their website is very nicely done. 

They have an excellent self service portal which can be used to port numbers and limit services to your phone.

Coverage

I am blown away with how good Sprints coverage is in central MA. I expected lots of dead spots but found none (so far). The data speeds are fairly slow with .5 down and .5 up being the norm.

This is generally much slower than AT&T but about the same as Verizon. I lived with Verizon for 6 weeks and had few issues with the slow speed, so I can deal with it.

The last 10 miles to my house is where cell phone service dies. surprisingly, I was able to make voice calls almost all the way to my house. It dies at my house due to the topography, but if I walk a mile down the road I am getting 3 bars which is actually a bit better than my AT&T phone.

If this trend holds I would say there will be no issues with coverage.

Bottom Line

I give Ting 9 out of 10 stars at this point. It’s a great service that is sure to give the other carriers trouble. I am estimating a phone bill of between $36 and $54 each month. If I can be smart on my data usage, it will be $36….thats a whopping 60% reduction in my phone bill.

Please Support This Blog

I generally don’t make any attempt to monetize this blog. If you are going to sign up with Ting anyway, please use this referral link. It gets you $25 off a phone from them and it gives me a $25 credit.

https://z8icf12aes4.ting.com/

Aereo Update

I’ve been using Aereo now for several months and have learned a number of things I though I would share.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the service.  I get the morning and nightly news without any trouble at all.  There are a couple old TV shows that I record.  Of course there is the excellent content on PBS that I record as well.

The biggest thing I have learned is how far brodcast TV has fallen.  With the exception of PBS everything else is total crap.

Its not perfect…

Aereo is not perfect.  In fact it has a severe weakness, streaming NFL football games.  Yesterday I wanted to watch the Pats crush the Bills.  Not only were the Pats awful, Aereo was too.  It was so bad, I had to visit the local pizza joint to watch the game.  Tweets about the issue were responded to, but I suspect the issue may not be fixable.  If you have thousands of customers, all with their own TV antenna….thats thousands of separate streams all serving the same content.   We will give it a couple more games to see for sure.

Aereo TV Service Review

Dan_Blocker_in_Bonanza_opening_credits_episode_Bitter_Water
Generally speaking, I don’t watch very much television.  I think TV turns your brains into mush.  The so-called “news” is so biased towards the political views of the network owners I can’t stand to watch it.

There are a few of the “retro” TV stations and public television stations that air some watchable content.  I would like to pick up these stations using an HD antenna, but I’m out in the sticks and would need a 400ft tower to pick anything up…especially now that we switched to digital HD format.

Another issue is the DVR.  I would need one running constantly to record the few shows worth watching.  A DVR consumes lots of power, and since I’m off grid that’s not something I would choose to operate with my current power system.

Along comes Aereo a new TV service that has an antenna mounted to the roof of a data center someplace.  They can stream any shows they receive with their antenna over the internet.  They can also record shows and stream them back to you at a later time.

You might think that the cable companies would take issue with what they are doing, and you would be right.  There has been lots of legal wrangling going on and I’m not sure how it will play out.

In the meantime, I pre-registered for their Boston service some time ago.  Earlier this week I got my invite and signed up on the side of the road from my iPhone.  For 8 bucks a month I get access to live TV and 20 hours of DVR space.

After signing up (on the side of the road) the first show I tuned in to was Bonanza.  There has been some cattle rustling going on at the Ponderosa…the picture was perfect and never skipped a beat while Hoss took care of business.

Since then, I have set up the DVR to record This Old House, Star Trek, and a bunch of other stuff.  When at home, I watch with my iPad and get excellent video even over my slow ass DSL line which is only about 1.5Mbps down and .3Mbps up.

You can register up to 5 devices with the service but you can only use them when you are located in the area where you signed up.  Their system uses the location services in your web browser to verify you are located in the service area.

If you use the Firefox browser there are some Geo-Location spoofing add-ons that you can use to get access in other places.  You still need a billing address in the target location in order to sign up, so this little trick won’t let you get access if you live outside the service area.

Is this Ethical?
Is it ethical to pay a third-party to intercept TV signals on your behalf?  Is it ethical for that third-party to profit from TV signals that are broadcast and available for free?

I say yes.  The TV stations are too cheap to properly broadcast these signals to my house.  The cable companies are too cheap to string wires in my town. Given the proper antenna mast and other equipment, I could intercept these signals myself.  I choose not to buy that equipment and pay to use someone elses.

The company has money invested in this equipment and rightfully deserves to be paid for their service.  The content is being delivered full of commercials and other advertising even the content providers are getting paid.

If the networks were not so technologically backwards they could have built this service themselves and took my money instead of Aereo.  Someone else beat them to it and now they are forced to play catch up.  Hopefully they play catch up by spending money on services, rather than in the courts.  Competition is a good thing and I hope this is the start of more content being streamed over the internet.

For a measly 6 watts of power (DSL modem), I have access to over the air TV and a DVR.  It would take 10 to 20 times that much power if I had to do this myself with an antenna and DVR.

conclusion
The Aereo service rocks!  In my rather odd living arrangements it fills my needs perfectly.  When it rolls out near you, I suggest you give it a try.  As with all my reviews, I received no compensation from Aereo or anyone else.  My opinions are my own and no one elses.

:)

Tumbleweed Workshop Boston Review

The folks from Tumbleweed Tiny Homes were kind enough to let me speak (read: babble) at their Boston workshop. So I woke up bright and early Saturday morning, and asked Siri to take me to the Holiday Inn on beacon St. Oddly enough, the directions were to drive down Rt 2 for 50 miles and take a right.

I expected a crowd of about 20 granola eating back to the earth types, but I could not have been more wrong. There were over 100 people from all walks of life all with different ideas on what they wanted to do with tiny homes.  It was pretty cool to see.

The main presenters Ella and Paul (mostly Ella) were both really really good. I attend mostly tech conferences, the only presenters I have seen better than Ella was steve jobs at WWDC! The presentation materials have been thru many levels of revision and are well put together and polished.

Frankly, I was pretty bored waiting to go on since I’ve been doing this stuff for some time now. If it were 4 years ago I would not have been bored at all, in fact I would have learned quite a lot.  If you are a tiny house newb, I think you can learn a lot at one of these workshops.

The attendees were all pretty excited and were asking questions that tell me they have all been doing some reading. If this workshop is any indication, I would say that the tiny house community is alive, well, and growing!

If you have been thinking about attending a workshop, I would say its money well spent.

Full Disclosure: I was not paid to speak at the conference or to review it….zero shenanigans here 😉

Stanley Fat Max Tools…Not That “Fat”

I am writing this post to warn my readers away from tools made by Stanley under the “Fat Max” brand.  These tools are marketed as professional grade tools and come with prices to match.

I have owned three Fat Max tools: 25′ Tape, chalk line, and hammer stapler and they are all now in the trash.

25′ Tape

tape

This tape is nice and wide which allows it to reach a long distance away without bending.  The problem is that if you reach more than about 10 feet it will not roll itself up without help.  I threw this item across the bodega breaking the lock off in the process….its working perfectly as landscape filler.

Chalk Line

chalk

When I first started using this line I thought that the lines were coming out pretty light even full of chalk.  When I needed another line in red, I bought a Dewalt and guess what the lines were 2X darker.  Shortly after that, the reel mechanism kept jamming.  I unrolled all the line thinking it may be tangled internally, but it still kept jamming up.  This item spent the winter encased in ice next to the Bodega….it will join the tape in the landfill once the ice melts.

Hammer Stapler

stapler

This tool has pissed me off from day one!  It simply will not drive staples into anything reliability.  I thought the OSB that I was using was a bit hard and gave it the benefit of the doubt.  This weekend I needed it to tack building wrap to 2×4’s and it still did not work the way it should.  No problem…it will never again fail to drive another staple:

Conclusion

I don’t recommend any tools made by Stanley.  I have had good experience with tools made by Dewalt…I would try them.

Origo Heat Pal 5000 Review

I recently subscribed to Tiny House Magazine on my iPad and was reading the article on an alcohol based stove/oven combo made by a Swedish company Origo.

I have propane for my hot water heater, but I would like to avoid using it if possible.  I will be looking at a solar hot water heater in the future and if that works out I could eliminate the need for propane except for cooking.  After reading the article on this alcohol stove I think that’s the ticket to eliminate the use of propane for cooking.

Alcohol fuel has the benefit of clean burning and being renewable.  It is also possible to distill your own should it become scarce.  You will never be able to make your own propane.  Alcohol is not under pressure and a leak wont blow up your house.  Alcohol does not produce carbon monoxide that will kill you like propane (big plus).  The downside is that alcohol packs less of a punch (BTU’s) compared to propane and is a bit more expensive.

Storage life of alcohol is on par with propane except you don’t need special pressure vessel.  Stored in sealed 1 gallon metal cans the shelf life is many years and you can store as much or as little as you like.  The limit to propane is about 500 gallons as the tanks get pretty large and expensive.

As an experiment I bought a Origo Heat Pal 5000 off eBay for about $70.  This unit contains the same single alcohol burner that is used in all Origo stoves/ovens.  I wanted to get a sense of how well they work and how much performance will be sacrificed to go alcohol.

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The unit arrived undamaged which is not surprising since the design is really really simple.  There is a heat shield on top to prevent accidentaly dropping something directly on to the burner when using the device as a heater.

Removing the heat shield reveals a typical cook top suitable for heating a pot of something.  I’m not sure a standard frying pan would fit as the walls around the burner are very high.  Removing the burner reveals the heart of the stove which is a stainless steel canister that holds the alcohol fuel.  This canister is packed with a fiber of some kind that absorbs the fuel.  You can actually turn the canister upside down and no fuel leaks out.

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photo 3

I filled the stove with denatured alcohol from home depot and fired the unit up.  Using a long butane lighter I stuck it thru holes in the cook top and it lit right up.  Heat is controlled with a simple and ingenious mechanism that slides a plate over the top of the alcohol canister partially or fully obscuring it (which extinguished the flame).

photo 1

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I placed a pot of water that was a double helping of oatmeal to see how long it would take to boil.  About 8 minutes later I had a pot of violently boiling water.  I would say that this was about 20-30% longer than the small gas powerd hotplate that I currently use.

Heating

The heat pal is designed to be used as a small heater.  I ran it for about 2 hours one morning to take the morning chill off the cabin after the stove burned down.  Typically the cabin would be about 50 degrees by morning.  The morning I tried the Heatpal it stayed above 60.  Its not going to replace your wood stove but does make a nice little space heater.

Conclusion

The origo cook tops provide adequate heat for most cooking you just need to be a little patient.  I have zero issues leaving one running overnight as a heat source.  I like the fact that the fuel is renewable and very safe.  I also like the fact that I can store as much fuel as I like without the expense of a tank (unlike propane).

I will be looking for an Origo 6000 cooktop/oven combo to outfit my bodega with.  If you know anyone with a used one, drop me a line.

Note: It looks like the HeatPal 5000 has been replaced with the HeatPal 5100.  Looks to be a similar design and I would expect similar performance.  eBay is probably your best bet if you want a HeatPal 5000.

Great Stuff Pro Foam Gun

 

Pro_GunPg_Gun_14

 

Spray in foam is great for filling in gaps around windows and doors.  It’s also good for filling in gaps between sheets of rigid insulation as I have recently learned.  You can buy single use cans of great stuff but they are expensive and they “drip” constantly.  I decided to spend the $50 for the “Pro” gun and foam cans to see if I could make my life easier.

The package comes with a gun which has a small port on top that toy screw the can of foam into.  There are also a couple of straws which I did not use.  The Foam cans are about $12 at the big box store, but can be had for a bit less on Amazon.

On the last sheet of my roof insulation project there was a small triangle gap that was about 1 inch per side.  I could have cut a tiny piece of foam but decided to fill it with foam instead.  The gun made quick work of filling this area and I was also able to fill in a number of gaps in the tight confines of the overhangs.  There were no drips and I was able to start and stop as needed.  I did not have to worry about the foam curing on the tube as you would with the disposible cans.

The pro cans are roughly double the size of the disposable ones.  I have not done any scientific tests, but I really think that they pro cans go much further the disposable ones.  I was able to create a 18ft triangle described above and had lots left over.  I sealed the other side of the house (18ft) where the roof insulation meets the wall and filled in every gap that looked like it would take foam.  Even after all that there was still a bit of foam left over.  BTW, I was using the window sealing foam in this application to keep the expansion to a minimum.

Cleanup of the gun is very simple.  Just screw on a can of cleaner and spray.  Wait about 10 minutes and spray again then you are done.  My can of cleaner leaked badly when installed on the gun.  I had to remove it for the 10 minute soaking and wasted a lot of cleaning solution in the process.

The best part of this product is that the any foam left in the cans can be saved and used at a later date.  With the disposable cans you always end up wasting a bit of foam that you don’t need at the time.

Can_ProFamily

Conclusion

It was a large up front cost but I am very happy with this product.  Unless you are a contractor, you may not save any money but you will be able to do a better job with less hassle and mess.

 

Craftsman Nextec Right Angle Impact Driver


Doing a lot of work on the roof I decided that it would be nice to have a small battery-powered screw driver in my tool belt.  I own a nice Dewalt impact driver which is the gold standard IMO, but it’s too heavy to hang on you unless you really need it.

As a tool belt driver It does not need the ability to drive in timberlok fasteners or tighten large bolts.  I just need something capable of driving 1-4 inch screws and possibly drill a hole or two.

There are a number of battery-powered drivers from companies like Black and Decker, there is even one made by Dewalt (my default tool supplier).

As I shopped for this tool I learned that the Dewalt driver would not share batteries with my other tools.  I also found the Craftsman Nextec series of tools and their really compact right angle impact driver.  I did not expect to find an impact driver this compact and at $80 the price seemed right.

Another selling feature was some of the other tools in the series.  There is a small circular saw, sander, and multitool that I think may be of some use as I complete the finishing work on the Bodega.  I was also assured by the Sears dude that I could just bring it back if it sucked.

I left the store with the driver and a spare battery to see if this thing was a piece of shit or not.  Two things that turned me off right away was the operation of the light and the button that controls the direction.  The light only comes on when the bit is spinning unlike every other driver being sold.  The detent on the direction button is weak and easily moved during use.

The battery is a very compact lithium that is also very light.  You could easily carry one or two of these in your pocket.  The 120V charger has two lights to indicate the state of charging.  I charged both packs in just over an hour.  The spec says 30 minutes which sounds about right.  They also make a special charger that can charge to 25% in just 3 minutes.

With two charged packs I set out to install my wall crawlers on the left side of the building.  This would require driving six Timberlok Headlok fasteners thru 2×4’s to secure the bottom and a number of 3 inch drywall screws.

The Nextec performed flawlessly on this task.  It took about 30% longer to drive in the timberloks but it was perfectly acceptable.  The 3 inch screws went in easily as well.  Between used the tool fits reasonably in the hammer holster of my tool belt.  There are times when the wire ring activates the on/off switch but with some tweaking I think I can make that problem go away.

The device does have a “fuel gauge” that supposed to warn you when the battery gets low.  In practice you don’t get much warning at all…when the battery dies it really dies fast.  The 12V batteries are so small and light its easy to carry a spare (or even 2) in your tool belt.

If I had to guess, I think this driver could drive 50 or so large 3 inch drywall screws in a single charge.  Thats not really very many, but considering you can carry several spare batteries with you it’s not that bad either.  I don’t think I would use this tool to screw on a deck, but it could handle the job with enough spare battery packs.

Conclusion

Overall I would recommend this tool to people.  It’s a great way to have a fairly powerful impact driver with you on the job site without the bulk of a full size driver.  The driving power and battery life are not great but they are adequate.

Review: Chevy Spark

My move to western MA has saved me quite a bit of money since I no longer have a mortgage/rent payment.  I can’t say the same thing about my commuting expenses.  Between the rising cost of gas and the increased miles I have seen my gas expenses rise to over $500 per month!

My poor truck has over 60,000 miles on it in just 2 years.  If this pace keeps up I will need to buy a set of brakes and tires  in the not too distant future.  It was clear to me that I should find a cheap car that could take the brunt of these miles without costing me a small fortune.

If you have good credit it is possible to obtain a 60 month auto loan for about 3%. The car must be capable of doubling my MPG from my truck which means 40MPG.  This would in theory cut my gas bill from $500 to $250.  Based on a loan calculator I estimated that I could spend a maximum of $14,000 on a car.  This price point would only cost me the additional cost of insurance each month (which turns out to be $35/mo).
Honda, Toyota, Ford, Nissan

They all make cars costing $15,000-$18,000 that are all very nice but too expensive.  I especially like the new Honda Fit.  I owned an old Fit some years ago and it was a great car.  Toyota is going in the dumper in my opinion.  Their engineering and style seem lacking compared to Honda.

Government Motors

If I’m going to bail them out then I expect to get something for my tax dollar.  The Spark has been in other countries for several years.  No one really raves about it over in Europe, but they all say its been a competent car.  My feeling was that European tastes in automobiles are more discriminating than us here in America.  If it was good enough for the Greeks then I should be able to deal with it.

After a test drive my impression was that it drove well.  The brakes were solid and the clutch/shifter were adequate.  The rest of the car is a plastic piece of shit.  The seat coverings look like the vinyl off my dads 1962 pickup truck and will probably have the same amount of rips and holes in a couple of months.

After 45 agonizing minutes at the dealer, I signed papers on a silver base model Spark.  The price tag came to just about $14,000 with MA sales tax, dealer prep, destination charge, etc.  The payments on my miracle of modern automobile engineering ended up at $252 per month for 60 months which is half of my gas bill.

Delivery

I thought the buying process was agony.  The delivery process was 10X worse.  The dealer forced me to sith thru an OnStar activation where I had to talk with some guy who wanted to sell me minutes for phone calls and GPS directions.  Dude, I have a cell phone it lets me make calls and (get this) gives me driving directions!  If GM thinks that after my six month introductory period with OnStar I will be willing to shell out $300 per year they are smoking crack.  Of course the OnStar service cut out in the middle of the activation process which made it take even longer.

The only funny thing during delivery was when I pointed out that one the cheap plastic brackets holding the sun visor was broken.  I suspect this is a sign of things to come.

Day One

The interior is a plastic piece of shit (did I say that already?).  My first days commute went very well.  I expected my fuel mileage to suck with a new engine, but it was awesome!  The digital gauge cluster has a real time MPG display which I use to optimize my miles per gallon.  With one full commute and a trip to the store for lunch I hit 47.3MPG!  The EPA specs on this car are only 38 MPG so needless to say I am pretty happy with the mileage.

I will soon be installing a ScanGauge into my car.  At $4 per gallon it only needs to save me 25 gallons of fuel to pay for itself.  It also makes a kind of game driving to work each day…see how little fuel I can use game.  I will also pump up the tires a bit to shed some rolling resistance and hopefully pick up some efficiency.

Conclusion

If you are looking for cheap transportation you can’t beat an out the door price of $14,000 (sticker $12,995, discounted $100 by dealer).

Nokero N210C Product Review

I have a “thing” for solar-powered LED lights so today I will review the N210C made by Nokero.  This model is the same as the N200 except it comes with a digital camo pattern and a rubber bumper.

The idea is to produce solar lights to replace kerosene for lighting in third world countries.  Having used kerosene for space heating on several occasions, I can tell you that it is a pretty stink substance burned and unburned.  I imagine that the “stink” is probably not in any way good for the health of those in the vicinity.

Ordering and Delivery

Ordering was pretty easy on the Nokero website.  I paid using my Paypal account.  The delivery was not what I would call speedy as it was shipped from Hong Kong using the US postal service somehow.  It took about 20 calendar days to arrive at my doorstep.  Not what I would call speedy compared to say Amazon where stuff shows up two days later.  At any rate it arrived in a cardboard box that looked like it was packed by an 8 year old (who knows maybe it was).

Operation

The device is operated by sliding a tiny switch right or left to use either the high brightness or low brightness mode.  The switch is covered by a rubber boot that keeps the rain out.  Frankly the rubber boot is a pain in the ass and makes it tough to operate the switch.  Perhaps a taller switch would operate easier.

This model comes with a rubber bumper which I think is useless and would not recommend you spend money on.  The digital camo pattern is nice and matches the cover of my couch (most of the reason I bought this model over the N200).

A clip on the top of the device works well for hanging the device on a hook.  I now have tiny hooks installed all over my XS house so I can hang my light.  On high the brightness level is very good and on low it’s also pretty good.  I would say that the low setting works well for navigating around and general lighting.  The high setting probably is best for reading or other detail work.  Frankly, in a pinch either mode would be just fine for reading although I suspect that long hours might become tiresome on the low setting.

I used the light for a few hours on both high and low modes while I listened to the Patriots game and the brightness remained constant.  Out of the package I used three hours of battery and it was still going strong.  I have installed a tiny hook on the outside of my XS house so the N210 can charge during the day.

N210C Running on Full Power….Mmmm

I admit to being a bit critical in this review, however I really do like this light.  A few tweaks on the next generation and it will be really great.  Compared to the d.light I reviewed the N210/N200 is a much better value and a much better light in my opinion.  I do plan to order more, probably from someone on Amazon this time.  They do have an updated model with brighter LED’s (N220) maybe I will try one.

I will continue to use it and see how it operates over a longer period of time.  I will write a long-term review when I have spent enough time with it.  Right now, I give it a big thumbs up!